Women in business: Opting out

A lack of work-life balance is why many women are either stepping back or walking away from high-powered positions in government and other organizations

Mobina Jaffer with her daughter Farzana Jaffer Jeraj and grandson Ayaan Jeraj at her home in North Vancouver | Chung chow

In her 16 years as a senator, Mobina Jaffer has seen many promising female politicians make a powerful debut in Parliament only to head for the exit.

Although Canada has attracted international accolades for having a gender-equal federal Liberal cabinet, despite decades of efforts – her own included – overall only 92 of the 338 members of the current Parliament are women. “It’s not a job that is very women-friendly. It’s also not men-friendly, to be fair, especially for British Columbians. The divorce rate is so high for British Columbia [federal] politicians – men and women – because of the distance,” says Jaffer, who lives in Vancouver.

Mid-career, when many women jump off the corporate ladder in every industry, is when most women first enter politics. Most don’t stay for long. “I came to the conclusion that we will never have 50 per cent women [in Parliament] because of what the job is,” Jaffer says.

She blames the lack of work-life balance, particularly for federal politicians from the westernmost province, who spend about 20 hours a week just getting to and from Ottawa. Jaffer leaves her house late Sunday afternoon, arriving around 1 or 2 a.m. She works as much as 12 hours a day until Thursday, when she leaves after work to return home, where she normally spends Friday and Saturday working in her riding. By the time all is said and done, she has Sunday morning and afternoon for her family – her husband, two adult children and now grandchildren. Even as a busy and successful lawyer in her pre-political life, Jaffer was not as busy. “That’s the dilemma – that balance doesn’t exist because, I’ll tell you, no matter what you do there’s no balance,” she says.

Jaffer doesn’t name names, but in recent years bright political lights including former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and former NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie have called it quits at the height of their popularity. In 2009 and 2010, the non-profit group Samara Canada interviewed 65 former MPs about their experiences in the House of Commons. The participants included 21 former cabinet ministers and one former prime minister who left politics in the previous few years. Twenty-two per cent were women. One MP told the interviewers: “I went through a seven-week period that almost did me in as a human being.”

“MPs are often derided for the perks and benefits of their jobs, and assailed by columnists and editorial cartoonists for their ‘gold-plated pensions,’ says a 2013 article on the study by Royce Koop, James Farney and Alison Loat, then executive director of Samara, published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review. “Whatever merit there is to those criticisms, those who regularly lose their outrage over the benefits of MPs’ jobs rarely if ever bother to note the disadvantages of the career, and the fact that the demands of the job and its travel make achieving a work-family balance very difficult; indeed, we suspect that few Canadians would tolerate these demands in their own jobs.”

It’s not just the commute. A 2015 study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that the advent of smartphones has erased the lines between the personal and the professional. With the office at our fingertips 24-7, work now consumes 72 hours a week (including weekends) for professionals, managers and executives.

While these issues affect both men and women, female employees must also deal with the persistently shatterproof glass ceiling. Women still earn less for comparable jobs and the ranks of top management have barely changed in decades of pushing for gender parity. While men and women both start out their careers equally confident of their upward trajectory, by mid-career many women are losing their religion on equality rights in the upper offices. A 2014 study by Bain and Co. in the U.S. found that among experienced executives, 34 per cent of men are still aiming for the top, while only 16 per cent of women are. “As they gain experience, women’s confidence also falls by half, while men’s stays about the same,” it says.

The pressures of family life also continue to weigh heavily on women. According to Statistics Canada, both parents worked in 69 per cent of couple families with at least one child in 2014. In 1976, just 36 per cent both worked. Yet despite increased involvement by men in child-rearing duties and household work, women continue to devote more hours per week to these duties.

But commuting and child care are not the only factors leading women to step off the corporate ladder.  Janice Redekop was a tax manager for HSBC’s national tax group at its headquarters in Vancouver when she was asked about her career aspirations. “I remember having this conversation: ‘I don’t know if I really want it,’” she recalls. “I wasn’t sure I really wanted to get promoted because it just seemed like more and more work. So, it was more like work-life balance. I wanted to work, maybe, four days a week and not commute as far and maybe not work so much.”

At the time, she did not have children but she was training to compete in an Ironman triathlon. Living in Abbotsford, she left her house at 6:50 a.m. to catch the train to Vancouver and got back home around 7:45 p.m. “I never saw my husband,” she says. “I wanted to have a little bit more time to myself and that’s when I thought I would step back.”

Several years and three children later, she works three to four days a week at her own tax services company in Abbotsford. She handles accounts for 30 to 40 businesses and trusts. But her path also led to entrepreneurship – an area where women have outpaced men since the 2008-09 global recession. While women are still under-represented in the ranks of self-employed business owners, they have entered entrepreneurship at a significantly higher rate over the past decade.

Like men, some were forced into self-employment due to lack of alternatives – 22 per cent – according to a report by TD Economics. Fifty-three per cent of women, compared to 71 per cent of men, were spurred by the challenge and the desire to be their own boss. But work-life balance was a much more significant factor for women. Twenty-five per cent of female entrepreneurs surveyed said the desire for greater work-life balance led them to start a business, compared to just seven per cent of men.

Redekop was drawn to both being her own boss and a more balanced life when she partnered with a friend after the birth of her second son to open a fresh, healthy food business. “I thought maybe it’s more flexible to start my own business,” she says. “It wasn’t; it was super time-consuming.… I could not stop thinking about it, 24-7. I just could not stop obsessing about all the things I had to do. That’s when I decided that was not work-life balance for me.”

Now self-employed in the tax industry, she’s combined the best of both worlds. “I’m in charge of myself. I come and go and do my own thing,” says Redekop, who now has time to dedicate to volunteer work. A balanced life is different for everyone, she says. “When I look back at my mom – that generation where you worked full time and took care of all the stuff at home – she was always tired. My mom was always tired and cranky, that’s what I remember. Except for in the summer when she had downtime. So, I didn’t want to be that person but at the same time, you think that you need to work and be independent.”

For Jaffer, the benefits of a life in politics outweigh the sacrifices. “I love my job,” Jaffer says. “To be a politician, there is no other job that gives you the opportunities that a politician has. Every day you can make a difference and you can be a part of the conversation.” She credits her “amazing” husband and children for making it possible for her.

Jaffer would like Parliament to rethink the schedule, which has remained the same since MPs arrived via train for a month of law-making. A schedule that takes into account that most MPs fly home for the weekend – and the distance involved for some – could greatly increase interest in public-service life, she believes.

Technology could be tapped to reduce the amount of commuting involved, and more time in the riding could benefit everyone, she says. And politicians themselves could ease the expectations they have of themselves, Jaffer says. Female politicians still bear the brunt of home work. “You still want to make the birthday cake, and you still want to have a clean home and you still want to do these things,” she says.